Paul Gulisano, an authoritative essayist and expert in fantasy literature, author of books on Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, John Henry Newman, has just published with Ancora La Mappa dello Hobbit (The Map of The Hobbit), an easy-reading but comprehensive guide to the world of Tolkien, that comes with a map of Middle-earth created by the artist Elena Vanin, which will delight many fans of the fantasy genre.
ZENIT met with Prof. Gulisano in Messina, at the Hobbit Marathon organized by the Cultural Association Terremoti di Carta, and interviewed him.
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ZENIT: The Hobbit: a "prequel" to The Lord of the Rings, a children's fairy tale, or a minor work of the great Tolkien?
Paul Gulisano: This story is much more than a prequel to the Lord of the Rings, as many of the newer readers - or viewers - may think. It isn't a story - as instead many prequels are - to explain a posteriori the antecedents, secrets, and mysteries of a work... The story of the adventures of Bilbo Baggins and other characters familiar to readers of the Ring saga, such as Gandalf, Gollum, Elrond, dwarves and elves, sprung from Tolkein's imagination long before the events of the War of the Ring were imagined. In fact, the Lord of the Rings was conceived as a continuation of The Hobbit, and for a long time, in the correspondence that passed between Tolkien and his publisher, the book in the making was called "the new Hobbit".
"In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit." This strange phrase suddenly came to mind of the young professor on a hot summer afternoon, at his home in Oxford, while he was correcting papers for university admission. One of the examinees had left his English literature essay blank, and Professor Tolkien, on a mysterious inspiration, wrote the sentence on that blank sheet of paper. A name was born, Hobbit, and soon after the name would become a character, the most original creature of the vast fantasy world of the most brilliant writer of Imaginative Literature. Without that funny character, the Hobbit, it is likely that the entire fantastic universe that Tolkien later worked on for years would never have seen publication.
ZENIT: You write in your essay that the book was born not only from the author's erudite knowledge of myths and ancient legends, but also from his experience as a father...
Gulisano: Exactly. Tolkien told his four children stories about zany characters: Mr. Bliss, the dog Roverandom, and finally, fairy tales where brave young protagonists, like the Hobbit, fought against evil. It is certain that writer initially intended the story to be a children's fairy tale, told in a conversational tone in which the narrator addresses the little readers, urging them to venture themselves into the story. Over the course of several years of the book's preparation, however, the story was progressively enriched with the contents of Tolkien's Legendarium.
It was a story with an ancient flavour, in which you could hear the echo of ancient legends, and what's more, enriched with a pleasant kind of joy that a few years before Gilbert Chesterton had complained was the great absence from modern fiction: "In its essence, contemporary literature is almost totally devoid of joyful elements. And I think it's fair to say, generally speaking, that it isn't childish enough to be joyful." Tolkien possessed this childlike spirit, understood not as childishness, but as the ability to look at reality with the eyes of a child, full of questions and wonder.
ZENIT: Is The Hobbit, too, like The Lord of the Rings, full of Christian symbolism?
Gulisano: In The Hobbit there appears for the first time the major theme of renunciation, of sacrifice, that for Tolkien was one of the greatest virtues, one of the highest forms of heroism, a theme that would be developed in depth in The Lord of the Rings. The renunciation of possessing something, not out of masochism, nor to have "less", but to gain "something more" in humanity and virtue. Bilbo Baggins of the Shire is a testimony of how we can become heroes, even if we're not big and strong, even if we don't belong to an elite, by facing the challenges that life puts in front us, no matter how insurmountable they may seem.
The adventure he had lived had also taught him that great undertakings are not the work of a lone hero, but of a group. Friendship was to Tolkien one of the most important sentiments in life, and so his characters, too, cultivate it with passion. Enjoying each other's company is one of the most rewarding things. It is the sharing of interests, feelings, and even events. It is fraternal correction, and maybe recalling one to the essentials, as when, at the end of the story, recalling the adventures spent together, Gandalf reminds Bilbo of his limits, after having appreciated all his merits: "'You're a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I'm very fond of you, but you're only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!' 'Thank goodness!', said Bilbo laughing."
ZENIT: Your latest work is The Map of The Hobbit: what is it about?
Gulisano: For many years I have been working on Tolkien: I read it and reread it, I write about it, I talk about it, but mostly I notice that Tolkien's work is an inexhaustible mine. Tolkien is a teacher who never ceases to teach, and his world continues to be for me a point of reference, a cozy house in which to take refuge in the vicissitudes of life. There is still much to say, to discover, to highlight in his pages. So I thought it would be nice to give his readers, those who for years have been traversing the worlds created by our beloved Professor, as well as those who are discovering it only today, this sort of "travel diary" in the world of The Hobbit.
A guide, a map, in fact. It was an old project that I had been nourishing for years, ever since I did a similar work for the worlds of the Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. So I dreamed of completing this, my own trilogy, and when I got the chance to meet Elena Vanin, an extraordinary artist, well known in the fantasy world for having created the latex elf ears ("Neraluna") that every fan wants to wear, and saw the sacred fire of Art shining in her eyes, I realized that it was feasible. And so here we are with this new effort, The Map of The Hobbit (Ancora Publishing), a more "map-like" book, which we hope will be appreciated by all the readers of Tolkien's world and by those who want to know more about it.